“Even if I just clap my hands,” the Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh wrote, “the effect is everywhere, even in faraway galaxies.” What kind of effect, then, would incarcerating an individual—or not—have in the world? How would a Buddhist prosecutor, if that is not a contradiction in terms, approach this question? I posed these questions during my time at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office to ultimately answer another question for myself: Do I want to be a prosecutor?
One of the first things I noted when I started working at the DA’s Office was how prosecutors, unlike defense attorneys, did not have individual clients. Rather, they represented the “People,” as though individual crimes are committed against all members of society, not just the victims. While this made sense to me as heinous crimes violate our collectively held sentiments and moral norms, I thought that a Buddhist prosecutor would add—perhaps quite contentiously—that crimes are not just committed against all, but by all. Mindful of our interconnectedness, a Buddhist prosecutor would maintain that crimes are inseparable from their social and historical context, such as racial and economic inequality which are intertwined with the privileges that some continue to enjoy at the cost of others. To the extent that we all play a certain role in maintaining the status quo, a Buddhist prosecutor would note the curious discrepancy in which we are collectively offended by a criminal act, but not by our own complicity and complacency.
Yet, I struggled to believe in this idea of me being connected to criminality. After all, some defendants I helped prosecute were killers and rapists; how could I not draw a line between me and them, between good and evil? Of the most serious cases that I worked on—from a hit-and-run manslaughter to a cold-blooded homicide—the case that most troubled me was the stabbing of a 17- year-old soap shoplifter by a CVS employee. When the CVS employee caught the shoplifter in the act, he chased after the fleeing shoplifter and critically stabbed him in the stomach, puncturing three organs. The store surveillance caught not only the chase and the stabbing, but also the CVS employee’s re-enactment of the stabbing in front of his colleagues—as well as their laughter.
How could I understand their laughter? Even as a Buddhist, I found the task of identifying with the CVS stabber undesirable if not impossible. When I wrote to my Buddhist teacher seeking for answers, he sent me a piece of Chinese calligraphy. It read: “Suffering there is, but no one who suffers.” If our commonly held belief in the existence of discrete “self” is an illusion as Buddhists believe (as we are profoundly interconnected), then the only remaining recipient of compassion is simply suffering itself, I thought. Compassion must not be limited to the victims we deem “worthy” of our empathy, but extended to every subject of suffering, even the CVS stabber.
Going “beyond good and evil” in this sense does not necessarily mean endorsing or excusing criminal behavior, for Buddhism would still consider crimes unacceptable for producing further suffering in the world. Rather, I see empathy and compassion as the ability to see how every human event has causes. Even if we cannot comprehend all the different causes that led up to a specific moment, even “evil” is not created in vacuum. Thus, the Buddhist prosecutor would try to carry out her duties unclouded by anger in moral judgement, opening the possibility of walking in the direction of compassion, in the direction of judiciously reducing human suffering when possible.
The political theorist Hannah Arendt saw in our capacity for action a capacity to unleash a new beginning, something startlingly unexpected. She characterized forgiveness and punishment as having this capacity of creating a new beginning by ending the cycle of revenge which otherwise would go on forever. Without this closure, society cannot move on beyond trauma; and here forgiveness and punishment each has its place. Without fair punishment that holds individuals accountable, social bond will break down. On the other hand, without judicious forgiveness, machines may as well replace human prosecutors. Sensitive to the suffering of all involved parties, I want to walk the middle path between punishment and forgiveness. Not knowing what new beginning punishment and forgiveness will bring, however, the Buddhist prosecutor meditates on how even a simple clap can explode a chain reaction affecting far-away galaxies.